Clarence Fanto: Time Warner move riles Berkshirites
LENOX -- The cable guys are at it again.
In this case, it's Time Warner, which serves much of Berkshire County, including its largest communities.
Apparently, the suits who make the decisions at the nation's second-largest cable company are either unaware of or don't care about how strongly Berkshire viewers feel about their media isolation from Boston, and their need for connections to track state and regional news and weather.
There's long-simmering resentment here against the ancient federal government ruling that Pittsfield is part of the Albany TV "market." This goes back to the earliest days of TV in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, when antennas began sprouting on rooftops to capture any available signals.
The only ones that could be received, in many cases not well, were from Albany, roughly 40 miles as the eagle flies. The precursors of cable TV, called Community Antenna Television Systems (CATV), found many buyers here eager to overcome hilltop barriers to clear reception in most of the county.
The Federal Communications Commission put Berkshire County into Albany's TV domain back then, because even with CATV those were the only signals that could be picked up.
Over the decades, Century Cable and its successor Adelphia covered parts of North and South Berkshire, while the old Warner Cable system was installed in Pittsfield, Dalton and parts of Richmond. Time Warner took that over and then added the systems in North and South Berkshire, except for West Stockbridge, Hinsdale, Lanesborough and other small towns.
In recent years,with digital technology, customers willing to pay beyond basic service gained nearly 1,000 channels, by my count, including multiple all-news services, such as Time Warner's own New York-centric news station.
Time Warner has even added Al Jazeera America, which has garnered praise from TV writers for its serious, sober news coverage that steers clear of any bias.
But, in a move that the cable company says is unrelated, it is removing the Boston-based New England Cable News from its systems in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.
It's a public relations disaster, inexplicable, though I'm assured by professionals in the TV biz that any such decision is based on money. Usually cable operators pay for channels like NECN, although it's not clear in this case which party was paying the other.
The Eagle reported on this earlier in the week, citing a cable company PR honcho based in Greensboro, N.C., as saying, "we do not believe NECN represents a good value for all of our New England customers. Value includes several factors, including cost, viewership and unique content." Scott Pryzwansky described the decision as final.
At NECN, the recently promoted senior VP and general manager, Mike St. Peter e-mailed a statement to me and other reporters: "We have negotiated with Time Warner Cable, and are very disappointed in their decision, which will result in fewer options and diminished service for their New England customers."
William "Smitty" Pignatelli, our South Berkshire state rep, and his colleagues were deluged with protests, and The Eagle received many as well.
Peter Lafayette, of Pittsfield, voiced outrage in a message to Pignatelli, adding: "After continual rate increases, new charges on the cable boxes this year and the presence of so many garbage channels that few people around here watch, I am ready to cut our cable cord. I support whatever efforts you can make to get the FCC to get us out of the Albany domain and into a Massachusetts one so we have a connection once again to Boston."
From Stockbridge, Gary Pitney wrote: "It is stunning how TWC continues to be so arrogant and disconnected with us as customers (especially in Western Massachusetts). ... They load us up with a lot of inconsequential programming, and are indifferent to what we want and need in viewing. I watch NECN quite a bit because it is 24 hours and is a conduit for news and weather for our area and the whole of the region."
Pitney urged the lawmakers to put pressure on Time Warner to reconsider. "I am sure is all about money, because that is all they care about. We do not get value for the very expensive premium we pay them," he added.
I was also impressed by a message from John Bridagan, of Lee, a full-time snow removal contractor at this time of year. He cited NECN as one of "only seven channels favored on my TV set. I have become very fond of NECN's weather, in fact it is the only weather station that I rely on due to its accuracy and the fact that I can watch it throughout the night and very early in the morning.
"I do not believe that Time Warner cares about its customers, I know of several people throughout the Berkshires that regularly watch this channel as well. I do hope that something can be done to save this channel!"
And Irene Goldman Price complained directly to Pryzwansky, expressing "extreme disappointment at the prospect of losing what is clearly our best, and almost our only, access to Massachusetts statewide news and New England regional news. How are we to make informed decisions about our own government if we don't have access to news about it?
"I am also incensed by the company's clear disregard for the wishes of its subscribers -- they have made a decision that they are calling ‘final' without ever asking us what we think. I find that insulting. My husband and I tune in daily to NECN, because it gives us a sense of the what's happening in Boston economically, politically and socially. We would feel cut off from news of the New England region without NECN, and we would miss the regional perspective on national news, which we often prefer to CNN or the more political MSNBC."
In view of the widespread protest, the entire Berkshire delegation -- state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Reps. Pignatelli, Paul Mark, Gailanne Cariddi and Tricia Farley-Bouvier -- wrote to U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep Richard Neal seeking a solution.
They had complained last June about FCC "exclusivity" rules that require blacking out WCVB, Channel 5 in Boston, for Berkshire viewers during the time ABC network and syndicated programs are being shown by Albany's Channel 10. It should be noted that WCVB's local news coverage can still be viewed at noon, 5, 6 and 11 p.m.
The Berkshire delegation wants our Washington lawmakers to call on the FCC to take Berkshire County out of the Albany market, and also to pressure Time Warner Cable to reverse its decision and preserve NECN. The letter, was copied to Gov. Deval Patrick.
On Friday afternoon, a letter signed by Markey, Warren and Neal went out to Glenn Britt, the Time Warner CEO, asking for a reconsideration.
Increasingly, across the nation, key channels are going dark during contract disputes, as both sides hope for public outcry to help bring about a satisfactory financial resolution. My guess: After a predictable period of kicking and screaming, NECN will be back in Berkshire homes.
Clarence Fanto can be contacted at email@example.com
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